Sermon preached by the Bishop of Clogher at the Valedictory Service in Portora Royal School, Enniskillen on 24th June 2010
Sermon preached by the Bishop of Clogher at the Valedictory Service in Portora Royal School, Enniskillen on 24th June 2010

Valedictory Service and Thanksgiving, Portora Royal School on 24.June.2010
Readings: Galatians 3.23-29; St Luke 1.57-64
Sermon preached by the Right Rev’d Dr MGStA Jackson, chairperson of the Board of Governors

Galatians 3.24: But now that faith has come, you are no longer subject to a pedagogue, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

Simon Callow, in his one-person Shakespeare, now about to be released at large across the UK, brought us through the Seven Ages of Man and, in the First of the Seven Ages, informed us twice that Shakespeare invented the word: puke. I suspect this was of particular pertinence to the Headmaster’s wife, sitting somewhere in front of me in the Steel Hall. She had travelled that afternoon to Portora with a beautiful young pup, then under 12 weeks old, a wonderful creature with all the Seven Ages of Dog ahead of it. Unaccustomed at that early point in life to cars, it had regrettably been ill twice, as often, incidentally, as Simon Callow’s introduction of Shakespeare’s youthful addition to the English language to us in his performance. The proof of the pudding was in the …… - I leave you to add the final 5-letter word in this very technical and literary context, equipped with such essential background canine information.

Simon Callow led us with flourish and flamboyance and also with the tenderness which genuine love of words gives to a person who knows what he is doing with words. And he led us into the rich, varied and textured life of William Shakespeare in Stratford and in London. He introduced us to the Shakespeare who was a keen and inspired observer of people in all of their colour, their garishness, their gravity and their immorality – true to life and life as it truly is, tragic, comic, complex, yet exuberant and life-giving. (I could not but say to myself, as I listened and watched: What in heaven has religion done to life on earth?!) The eye for what matters and the voice to turn it into song can fill the most barren and Spartan of empty spaces with the ringing tones which turn information into shared experience. And this happened here – and those of us who witnessed it will never be the same again. To travel with Simon Callow through the life of William Shakespeare was a transformative event – all the more so because the product was not polished to perfection but it was content at its best and we saw it at the point of its maturing. Listening and watching in the Gallery in The Steel Hall where I had not sat since the summer of 1975, rather like Shakespeare’s own reluctant schoolboy, I remembered a number of people who still matter deeply to me in the Portora Gallery of people of substance and of inspiration. Many of them are still alive, some of them are sadly and tragically dead – Bill Barbour, Martin Schrecker, Renee Benson among those who have gone from us – these, I assure you, are simply their official names!

With nothing short of the greatest respect to them all, Portora is the place of the living and, in our context, tradition is something alive and lived. If we lose sight and sound of this, then we are doomed to banality. The pressure is on to commodify education more and more – that simply means it becomes a product which you sell and buy. The pressure is on to refine more and more performance at a certain level of specialization which is, in my opinion, much lower than the level of educational imagination which can be attained. So, to put it in straightforward language, students are being squeezed to reach a plateau of results, numerically computed, codified and collated, as an end in itself, without sufficient attention being given to the meeting of potential and imagination. Sadly, we live in Northern Ireland in an intensely and suffocatingly literalistic environment which diminishes and punishes creativity. But the same people, sitting with us this evening and in front of me, move forward into a new climate of educational expectation which comes as an almighty shock to their system. The key way forward, again in my opinion, is to make the absolutely best use of the system as it stands while at the same time living beyond it in terms of the furniture of the imagination offered to students within and beyond their formal and examination-based studies. This seems to me to be the challenge of big picture and attention to detail which Portora must embrace and which its pupils and parents must also embrace if all are to be enriched by being stretched in their schooldays in preparation for the world of work and for the world of learning, both of which are entirely and equally honourable. Imagination and personality need to meet information and attainment if Portorans are to flourish in contributing to tomorrow.

In relation to education itself, I want to go behind the Latin word from which the English word: education itself comes, to two Greek words which are pivotal to our grasping what the educational experiment is. In my own work from day to day, I am more and more convinced that the life of faith is primarily an experiment. Plato describes Socrates’ educational technique as the maieutic art. It is not as weird as it sounds. Every one of us here has been through it in order to get here today. It is literally the work of the midwife. Skills of manipulation, of easing new life forward, of drawing into the light someone who has been entirely happy in the womb until things simply do have to change – this is the picture which Plato uses to describe and to characterize the teaching methods of his dear friend Socrates. It respects the life which already is independent inside the life which is nurturing, caring and protective. It hastens the day of freedom and independence and therefore, ultimately, enables a new friendship of responsibility between parent and child, between teacher and pupil. The second is the word used by St Paul in the Letter to the Galatians to describe the role of law in relation to faith and of both of them in relation to the coming of Jesus Christ. And the word is: pedagogue. A pedagogue is not really a teacher wandering distractedly during break-time in a tweed jacket or an ill-fitting suit but, originally, a slave who led the child of the master of the house to school. This, in so many ways, is the first expression of Child Protection Policies and Safeguarding Trust. St Paul’s illustration would have been as recognizable to the Greek world to which he was writing and responding as would language of texting, twittering and podcasting to us today.

So, what is Paul’s point? He argues that, like the trusted slave who brings the treasured child to and from school daily, the law can bring you and me to the point of grace but cannot of itself set you or me free in the new world opened up by the coming of Jesus Christ. Language about the coming of Jesus Christ is important to grasping the content of faith in this new world. Christ uniquely subjected himself not only to the will of the Father but to the law and so became, in a sense, the definitive content of the new curriculum of salvation in and through what he did when he came - being born in hastily improvised midwifery; being both teacher and pupil in the Temple in Jerusalem; and in teaching the new curriculum in the towns and villages of Galilee of the Gentiles; being crucified, dying and rising from the dead in the Jerusalem in which he had first taught as a child. And so, Paul, as we have heard, takes us into the new life which remains based on this curriculum but has to be lived and lived out by each one of us. The community of faith is no self-satisfied huddle of the self-appointed holy, waiting, in a spirit of ever-deepening abstraction from the rest of this naughty world, for the Second Coming of the same Jesus Christ. This community of faith and of confidence and of hope and of love is one which is shaped by the greater community around it and, in turn, shapes that wider community - if it has the knowledge and the imagination to do so. If it does not do so, then everything it knows is simply what the Americans call: infotainment. Infotainment is a cruel word and a devastating concept precisely because it makes knowledge a commodity and makes ideas an entertainment. It offers room for neither context nor commitment. And this is an insufficient working model of Christianity.

In many ways, the world of information envelops our gathering here in pleasant summer surroundings this evening at the heart of Portora. There is no muzzling of information. There may, however, be a saturation-point for any or all of us. Be that as it may, there will still be more and more information. Judgement, selectivity, common sense, mature experience, integrity, care for others – all of these abstract qualities have a voice if you, the Class of 2010, give voice to them. If you do not, then our society runs the risk of sliding rather quickly into greater banality, indifference and cynical self-interest. In an end of exams, demob-happy environment, banality, indifference and cynical self-interest will, I am sure, be far from your minds. Few of you may become midwives but all of you can be pedagogues – leading people to an experience of reality which is transformative and sustaining of a quite different future, taking the best of what you have learned into what you are going to give next – not what you are going to take, but what you are going to give. With all the background and baggage which he carries, St Paul expresses it as excitingly as he can, and I might as well be honest: I don’t imagine that many of you regard Holy Scripture as in the least bit exciting. This is how he expresses it: Galatians 3.28 There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female; for you are all one person in Jesus Christ. If any of you were to come back at me and say: But do you not think that the overwhelming majority of the Christian Church itself does not live this out? I should have no option but to agree with you AND come back to you and say: But there is absolutely no reason that you cannot do so, however!

We who are here this evening can also leave a challenge and a legacy to this Royal School, which in some shape or form has doggedly, trenchantly and creatively made a contribution to the life of Fermanagh for more than four hundred years and we can do so in terms of St Paul’s argument openly and generously applied in the Spirit of Christ. The law – a system of discipline and order is essential if you and your successors are to test the strength and limitation of your own authority against the rules of engagement essential for the well-being of all; that is what a school is. Faith – belief in yourself and belief in someone and something beyond yourself and what you already know and how you currently use that knowledge; that is what a religion is. Curriculum and the extra-curricular lie at the heart of this – the former a security or a frustration, the later a distraction or a fulfilment? Only you now know, after what must seem to be a lifetime here.

Today in the Christian Church we celebrate the Birth of John the Baptizer – again, we see the need of a midwife. John challenged the humbug which passed for political accommodation - each one of you must do the same. John gave voice to the overlooked and the despised – each one of you must do the same. John, most of all, consistently pointed the way to someone and something greater than himself, however it pained him that it was in fact his own cousin – each one of you must do the same. John was named for independent thinking and action, Just listen to another significant moment in Holy Scripture: … but his mother spoke up: No! she said. He is to be called John. But, they said, there is nobody in your family who has that name…They enquired of his father …His name is John ( St Luke 1.60, 63).Listen, please, to the voice that breaks new ground.